Mr Jones: Famine, Propaganda, and the Remnants of Walter Duranty’s Reputation

Mr Jones

Directed by Agnieszka Holland

Running time 2h 21m

This is a film about the Holodomor told through the eyes of Gareth Jones, an average man from Wales (portrayed by a man with an above-average jawline).

The Holodomor was part of a deliberate, man-made genocide where millions starved to death between 1932 and 1933. The Soviet Union’s strictly authoritarian leadership forcibly removed the resources from Ukraine and left everyone to die. Historians are unsure, but between 7 and 12 million people died in Ukraine as a result of the famine. To make this figure more relatable, that’s roughly the population of Moscow (approx. 12m), Bangkok (approx. 11m), Greece (approx. 10m), or London (approx. 8m). 

[The following contains loads of spoilers, but the screenplay is based on real, historical events, so it’s kind of already spoiled] 

The film begins slowly in 1930s Westminster where Jones is working as a foreign advisor for David Lloyd George. The grandiose Parliament scenes are peppered with shots of George Orwell sitting in a hut surrounded by fields of thriving wheat, tapping out his missives on a very atmospheric typewriter. Meanwhile, the protagonist spends his days confronting rooms full of dusty old men who chuckle and roll their eyes at his suggestion that another war is heading their way, whilst we, the audience, can chuckle and roll our eyes back at them with the blessing of hindsight.

After Jones’ otherwise comfortable Westminster job is cut short, he steals away to Moscow to try and get an interview with Stalin. He uses his Russian skills, charm (read: jawline), and a shady tampered reference from Lloyd George to break through into upper-class Moscow life.

Western journalists posted in the Soviet Union had to navigate a complex propaganda project and while some purposefully toed the state-sanctioned narratives, others attempted to interpret it. Since few were let outside of Moscow and Leningrad, few could access a more realistic idea about life in the majority of the nation, yet even fewer were willing to try. 

Finding himself amidst other foreign correspondents, most of whom appear as a familiar class of intellectual Stalin admirers, Jones meets Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ “man in Moscow” and his aide, Ada. Duranty is depicted as a sweaty, spineless, money-oriented party animal high on Moscow’s wealth stolen directly from its southern “bread baskets”. To Jones, he consistently denies the rumours that Soviet Moscow is built upon exploitation and mass suffering, and for the sake of the film he plays the role of trying to stop the main storyline unfolding. Crucially, this portrayal of Duranty correlates perfectly with his historic shilling for Stalinist interests. He was, at best, a hollow one-man propaganda machine motivated by Soviet cash but, at worst, he harboured genuine morbid contempt for populations victimised by the USSR. Either way, hindsight has proven him completely despicable:

“There is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be.”
– Walter Duranty, New York Times, 15th November, 1931

“Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.”
– Walter Duranty, New York Times, 23rd August, 1933

Was Duranty simply parroting what he was paid to write by the Soviet Union, or did he actually believe Ukraine was expendable? I think the answer is clear.

“You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
– Walter Duranty, New York Times, 14th May, 1933

“There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”
– Walter Duranty, New York Times, 31st March, 1933

“Nothing. What are a few million dead Russians in a situation like this? Quite unimportant. This is just an incident in the sweeping historical changes here. I think the entire matter is exaggerated.” – Walter Duranty, at a party in Moscow in 1932 after being asked what he was going to write about the famine, in An American Engineer in Stalin’s Russia: The Memoirs of Zara Witkin, 1932-1934, University of California Press

Some may say we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead (@Thatcher, rot in hell), but Duranty’s writing helped to enable and conceal a genocide, and he won a fucking Pulitzer for it. He ignited a spirit of doubt in English-speaking minds about the validity of victim and eyewitness testimonies in the face of state propaganda (and that spirit lives on in the hellscape of online tankies). There is no absolving this man, and it is heartening that the Mr Jones film wrote him this way.

As is expected of most historically successful men, unnamed women did all of their actual hard work. In the film, Duranty’s colleague Ada Brooks has a much sharper analysis of the Soviet situation. Jones forces his way into her life and quickly gathers confirmation that there is something suspicious going on behind the scenes. He breaks out of the opulent riches and Romanesque orgies of foreign correspondents in Moscow, comfortably cradled in the hands of Stalin, and sneaks into Ukraine.

From the moment he boards a train to Ukraine, the hunger is palpable in those who surround him. He innocently peels an orange and ends up watching people scrabbling to eat the discarded skin. The scenes in Ukraine continue to be bleak and terrifying, where  Jones is met with corpses, ghostly villages, starving children, and cannibalism. The situation is filmed with empathy and respect, but without concealing the reality of what happened. There were criticisms of depicting eating human flesh, as some felt this portrayed the starving masses as barbaric and cruel and, as unnerving as these scenes were, this cruelty speaks only of those who enforced such a desperate situation upon people. 

After being noticed too many times, Jones eventually gets caught, his camera and notes are confiscated, he gets threatened with the execution of innocent citizens to keep quiet, and he’s forced to leave. Jones returns to London to again try and convince a bunch of sneery old comfortable men that a genocide is taking place. Clearly traumatised, he struggles around cooked meats in a fancy London restaurant filled with the incumbent literati, and starts weeping in the middle of his home village in Wales. It feels intentional and important that he returns to the same sets and scenery as he was filmed in before witnessing genocide up close.

If I could criticise this film, it would be that it’s told through the feelings and experiences of Western men, from Jones to Duranty to Orwell. The leading woman is bold and clever, but quickly becomes a love interest whose intellect is a side note. The victims of Soviet repression are given passive airtime through Jones’ frozen glasses, but this is a film about who controls historical writing, the narrative isn’t given to the victims. In London and Moscow, Jones encounters (completely male) foreign correspondents, researchers, politicians, poets, and dissidents, and the film is rich in literary and historical references. Everyone is namedropping and people keep mentioning Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. There is a scene where Orwell meets Jones – it’s not confirmed whether this happened in real life, but for the sake of film it is effective. Jones has returned to London and everyone knows what he’s been up to, and most think he has gone mad. He’s feeling understandably downtrodden and disillusioned, but he keeps on telling the truth. After one of his speeches, Orwell approaches him with tears in his eyes and says something like “so that means there’s no hope?”. For Orwell, Jones had crushed the dream of an existing, viable alternative to the collapsed, depressed, slumped capitalism in London. Unlike some, Orwell didn’t proceed to stick his head in the sand and plough on with a hopeless narrative.

It is attractive to people like Duranty, to theorists in the West, to political pundits the worldover, to take in the vision of the Soviet Union as prosperous, progressive, beautiful, sophisticated, successful… precisely what the state proffers in its propaganda image. It is easy, it is lazy. It is a simple task to ignore a situation like that of Ukraine in 1932-3. Those who orchestrated the famine expected that nobody would ever find out, that was part of the plan. It is also much too convenient to say “look, the USSR worked! Moscow was proof! The Holodomor is just anti-communist propaganda” in a world full of actual anti-communist propaganda. Throughout, Mr Jones shows the conflict between those who want to uphold the “dream”, and those who simply can’t. 

It’s kind of a shame that the film went down the independent, high-brow awards route, because more people should see this. Before lockdown, Mr Jones was still showing in a few cinemas across the UK, and you can get it from various streaming sites of varying degrees of legitimacy which I won’t link to. In reading more about the Holodomor, thankfully, most of the information is reputable and well-meaning (a recent, comprehensive, English example is Red Famine by Anne Applebaum (who also won a Pulitzer)). There remains a minority of sources designed to manipulate the history of Ukraine to justify certain modern movements, continue to ignore the fuck out of them.

Darya Rustamova